Tactical or strategic: all nuclear weapons are political by nature

Why Pakistan’s claims to “full spectrum” deterrence are meaningless in the subcontinental context.

Two disparate triggers in March 2015 turned the world’s attention to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, yet again. The first was a Stimson Center essay Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Operational Myths and Realities by Jeffrey D McCausland which concluded that the induction of short-range, nuclear-capable delivery vehicles in Pakistan’s arsenal is both dangerous and problematic.


The second trigger was a speech by Gen Khalid Kidwai at the Carnegie conference on Nuclear Policy where he gave a glimpse of Pakistan’s nuclear philosophy — Pakistan moving to what he described as “full-spectrum deterrence,” the desire for a sea-based deterrent and how “having tactical nuclear weapons would make a war less likely”. These occurrences have been interpreted as Pakistan’s attempt at lowering the nuclear threshold by using short-range, battlefield “tactical” nuclear weapons. The fear that these tactical nuclear weapons might be inducted into Pakistan’s armed forces triggered concern among the nuclear non-proliferation observers, multilateral organisations and states.

But what do these tactical weapons mean for India? What should be India’s response to Pakistan’s aggressive posturing?  These are some questions that we attempt to answer in this article.

The term tactical nuclear weapons itself comes from Cold War era literature, from a time when nuclear war fighting and nuclear war winnability were seriously being considered as policy options. As a result, two distinct types of nuclear weapons were envisaged: the first were “strategic” in nature, which implied the use of high-yield nuclear devices delivered over great distances through strategic means — Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) or long-range bombers — aimed to deliver a decapitating blow to the target state, its cities or its military and industrial facilities.

The second type was referred to as ‘tactical’, meant to be used on the battlefield to halt military advances or debilitate large army formations. By design, these weapons were of a significantly lower yield than the strategic nuclear weapons.  The underlying principle was that though the employment of tactical nuclear weapons against an advancing army would cause huge losses, the recipient would not respond in a manner that would escalate the war to a strategic scale.

That civilian control over these battlefield nuclear weapons would be lesser particularly in the midst of conflict presents its own unique set of challenges, as highlighted in the Stimson Center Report: It required the greatest degree of flexibility to the corps commander due to the massive coordination effort needed for effective use. But it also demanded maximum central control at the highest political level in order to control escalation and crisis management.”

The above paradox in turn produced three problem areas, which Pakistan will also need to resolve: “First, the problem of refining targets quickly, which would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. During the Cold War an American expert argued that in fact the doctrine assumed two sine qua non conditions—the existence of a worthwhile target (i.e. a sufficiently large and concentrated formation to justify the use of a tactical nuclear weapon); and a certain permanence of the target in order to permit its identification, its pinpointing, the transmitting of necessary data and the final engagement. Second, an implicit requirement existed to maintain three plans—one nuclear, one conventional, and one integrated—while the request- release process would be ongoing (making the prospects of success seem even further remote). Third, it demanded that all necessary coordination to employ tactical nuclear weapons be done in a manner consistent with conventional fire planning and tactical maneuver. This paradox and the resulting problem areas described were endemic during the Cold War and would be also true for any future doctrinal concept for the use of tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistan.”

This paradox and its resultant problem areas proved too daunting for the Cold War adversaries. As their marginal costs far outweighed their marginal benefits, tactical nuclear weapons eventually ceased to be relied upon. Notwithstanding these real operational difficulties, the Cold War thought process loomed large on Pakistan’s nuclear strategy. As a result, Pakistan invested in developing tactical nuclear weapons along with a strategic deterrent.

With time, Pakistan has raised new straw men to justify its investment in its tactical nuclear programme, the latest of which is the alleged “Cold Start” doctrine of the Indian Army.  Although the Indian Army has certainly mooted potential conventional options to punish Pakistan for its imposition of sub-conventional warfare on India, there simply is no “Cold Start” doctrine, a fact elucidated by former Army Chief Gen VK Singh.  Indeed, structural challenges and capability limitations effectively preclude the Indian Army of operationalising such a concept, a view echoed even by the Indian Air Force. Thus, Pakistan’s apocryphal claims of requiring tactical nuclear weapons to deter what is an imagined Indian military doctrine hold no water.  In reality, Pakistan seeks tactical nuclear weapons not to augment a defensive posture, but to pursue its policy of terrorism against India under the cover of nuclear deterrence.

We can make the following observations relating to India based on Gen Kidwai’s statements:
First, India’s nuclear doctrine articulates a No First Use (NFU) position, but commits to massive retaliation in the event that a nuclear weapon is used against it (referred to as “punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor” in the nuclear doctrine)  Thus, in the event that Pakistan were to target India with nuclear weapons, it will likely invite a response commensurate with India’s nuclear doctrine, regardless of Pakistan’s marketing strategy around the weapon in question.  Pakistan’s desire to induct tactical nuclear weapons in the belief that it can either entirely deter India or hold India to a “limited” nuclear exchange is both poorly conceived and constitutes a dangerous gamble.

Second, unlike Cold War antagonists which were separated by great distances, India and Pakistan share borders, many of which are high population (and often dense) centers. Thus, usage of battlefield nuclear weapons can very well cause damage (both immediate and latent) to civilian populations, thus making the impact strategic, even if the weapon itself is claimed to be “tactical.”  Needless to say that Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons will also likely impact its own army and population centers along the border, should they be used to target an advancing Indian Army, as is alleged objective of the weapon.

And third, with regard to Gen Kidwai’s claims that Pakistan intended to operationalize the 2,750 km range Shaheen-3 missile to prevent India gaining secondary-strike capability from the Andaman and Nicobar islands, India’s deterrence credibility comes from a second-strike capability that backed by a nuclear triad.

Since the 1998 nuclear tests, India has invested in programs that aim to mature its delivery capabilities through land (via mobile launchers), air (via aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons) and sea (via submarines).  The continuing maturation of this nuclear triad will provide India the ability to respond to a first trike by Pakistan through a myriad of platforms.  Thus, Gen. Kidwai’s attempted focus on the Andamans appears somewhat strange, Pakistan’s unproven ability to take out precise targets 2,750 km away notwithstanding.

In summary, tactical or strategic—any kind of nuclear weapon is a political weapon. Its success lies in it being able to achieve political objectives without the need ever arising to detonate it. Even Khalid Kidwai’s exposition of Pakistan’s nuclear capability at a conference in US was meant to serve the same purpose—as a political tool aimed at decision makers in the US to dissuade them from closer rapprochement with India on all things nuclear (NSG membership, nuclear deal, etc) or to foster favourable discussions on ballistic missile defense systems.

As long as it is understood that nuclear weapons are political and not meant for actual war fighting, India is in a position to manage the nuclear threat from Pakistan.

Photo: Wikipedia